Moral Statement Supporting an Empty Homes Tax in San Francisco

“Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” – Isaiah 5:8

At the age of 75, Bill was forced out of his San Francisco home of 20 years by a large property management firm, and had to start life over in Chico. In her 80’s, Elizabeth chose to stop taking her medication after receiving an eviction notice from her landlord, and died shortly thereafter. Meanwhile Maria, a single mother of two who has already been evicted twice during the pandemic because her job doesn’t pay nearly enough, is now fighting to stay in the only thing that is keeping her and her kids from being forced onto the streets, a structurally deficient and neglected hotel room.

These stories are part of a long history of “urban renewal” programs designed to create wealth for real estate development and financial interests by removing poor and working-class people from their homes and redeveloping properties for a profit. The plan was to make San Francisco richer and whiter while undermining the power of organized labor. In the words of a 1966 planning report, “If San Francisco decides to compete effectively with other cities for new ‘clean’ industries and new corporate power, its population will move closer to ‘standard white Anglo Saxon protestant’ characteristics” (San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association, Prologue to Action, 1966).

As faith leaders, we condemn this racist and classist history and its ongoing legacy of diminishing the cultural and socioeconomic diversity of our City. We are tired of seeing our neighbors pushed out of the city or onto the streets, while thousands of housing units lie vacant. Our scriptures warn us that wealth inequality and confiscation of lands and homes lead to moral decay and social unrest. They teach us that everyone deserves a home. Housing for all, not just wealth for the few: this is the moral foundation for a just economic order.

The Budget and Legislative Analyst’s recent report on residential vacancies revealed that 10% of San Francisco’s housing stock is unoccupied. More than 40,000 housing units were empty at the end of 2020. While units may be vacant for a variety of reasons, a significant number are second homes or investment properties that were never intended to be occupied.

This same report indicated that the City is well short of its goals for building affordable housing (very low income, low income, and moderate housing is only at 35% of goal), while the goal for developing market rate housing has been exceeded (reaching 148% of goal). What comes into view is a picture of more and more market rate housing being built to generate wealth for fewer and fewer people, while poor and working-class families continue to be displaced and evicted because they can’t keep up with rising housing costs.

One way to begin to reverse this legacy of unjust wealth accumulation is the adoption of an empty homes tax. A carefully crafted and fairly implemented tax on vacant residential units would incentivize putting available housing on the market, the development of affordable housing, and generating much-needed funds to provide rental subsidies to those struggling to remain in their homes and recover from this pandemic. We support this incremental but necessary step to recover the soul of San Francisco.

We invite all clergy and those working in a pastoral role in San Francisco to sign this statement here.